This article is the copyright and ownership of Charles Platkin and DietDetective.com and is republished with its permission.
By Charles Platkin, PhD, JD, MPH
Naomi Starkman is a lawyer, farmer, journalist and food advocate, and the founder of the award winning website Civileats.com. If you haven’t heard or read Civileats.com, here is a description in her own words: “Civil Eats is a daily online news and commentary source for critical thought about the American food system. Through a blend of news and commentary covering the heartland to Main Street and Capitol Hill, the site has featured those working on the frontlines to change the food system.” I had the opportunity to do an email interview with her and learn more about this maverick food policy influencer.
Diet Detective: First of all, thank you for agreeing to do this interview. As you know, I’m very impressed with what you and your staff have done with CivilEats.com. What inspired you to become a food advocate? Was it something in your background? Was there a trigger or an “aha” moment?
Naomi Starkman: Thank you for your interest in our work at Civil Eats. My path to good food advocacy has been circuitous. I studied to be a lawyer and have worked as a public policy analyst, a farmer, and as a writer and editor. I studied international relations and law but worked in city politics, and learned early in my career that policy doesn’t happen in a vacuum. I believe that in order for real change to occur, the public must be engaged, and in order to engage the public, mass media must make it matter. The needle often moves forward faster in the court of public opinion, and journalism can help be a light that shines to illuminate, educate, and activate. I worked for several years as a media consultant in New York and on the annual New Yorker Festival, a three-day literary and arts celebration. It was there that I first met Chefs Alice Waters, Peter Hoffman, and Dan Barber. They were preparing a meal as part of the Festival, and a light bulb went on: I wanted to know the story behind the glorious food they were preparing. And it was this storytelling that started me on a path to agriculture on which I have now been for +10 years. I volunteered at Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture for a year and then quit it all and moved to work at one of the largest and oldest organic farms in the state of Washington, Helsing Junction Farm. I then worked on Slow Food Nation in 2008, an event considered by many to be a watershed moment in the food movement, and together with a team, created a blog which in 2009, co-founder Paula Crossfield and I morphed into Civil Eats. In 2013, we raised a record-breaking $100,000 via Kickstarter, which was incredibly gratifying. The James Beard Foundation named Civil Eats its 2014 Publication of the Year. In the past few years, we’ve been lucky to have had the incredible talents of Managing Editor Twilight Greenaway.
Diet Detective: Food is sexy, and the media love topics that can capture the attention of readers and viewers. I’m wondering if, as a result, we’ve blown the extent of the food system’s problems out of proportion. Or is it the oppositeare the problems even worse than most people think?
Naomi Starkman: Food is a multibillion-dollar business and it touches every aspect of our lives. We’re living in a new paradox: Never before have we been so overfed and undernourished. And we’re suffering from negative health consequences of epic proportions from the overuse of pesticides and antibiotics in our meat to junk food subsidies, lack of access to fresh, affordable food, and more. So no, it’s not being overblown. We’re just beginning to unravel the complexity of the problems in the food system and the problems are still pretty serious. Still, despite all of the bad news in the food world, we strive to tell stories of hope and inspiration, to focus on what’s working, and ways to fix this broken system.
Diet Detective: What was missing in the world of food policy and practice before Civil Eats (without modesty please)? What was your impetus for starting the publication, and how has it grown since its inception?
Naomi Starkman: We started Civil Eats because very few people were writing thoughtfully about what it will take to build a sustainable food system. Today, that has changed and the market for these ideas, and the businesses behind them, is booming. Our audience still turns to us to tell complex, timely stories that illuminate pivotal, over-looked aspects of food and farming. For nearly eight years, Civil Eats has been in the forefront of highlighting these changes. We’re now bringing them to a wider, mainstream audience, and, hopefully, speaking truth to power. We do this because we believe in the power of storytelling. By capturing strong narratives and ideas, we hope to inspire, educate, and inform.
Diet Detective: Can you tell us about Civil Eats? What is your main purpose and how does it differ from other publications focused on food? You’ve mentioned Civil Eats’ in-depth journalism – can you also talk about that?
Naomi Starkman: Civil Eats is a daily online news and commentary source for critical thought about the American food system. Through a blend of news and commentary covering the heartland to Main Street and Capitol Hill, the site has featured those working on the frontlines to change the food system. Civil Eats’ continued finger on the pulse of trend and idea stories on sustainable agriculture, food politics, and food justice has made it the leading source for mainstream media stories on food and farming. From state and federal policy on agroecology to urban farming and school lunch to food stamps, Civil Eats has reported on the most important food and agriculture stories of our time, profiled hundreds of innovative models, and provided a steady stream of commentary and analysis found nowhere else. The site has worked with the leading thinkers and doers in this space and attracted a strong following and accolades for its original reporting. Civil Eats breaks news, spurs trends, and is regularly picked up and cited in mainstream media. The site leads the conversation by publishing stories that get re-reported elsewhere, and many outlets look to us as an expert source in the field. We have several key media partnerships, including content exchanges with TIME, The Atlantic, Food & Wine, Harvest Public Media, and previously, Yahoo! and others, bringing our stories to millions of new readers.
Diet Detective: How do you see the future of food journalism? And all journalism for that matter? Is there still a place for for-profit journalism? Or should it all be nonprofit to keep it balanced?
Naomi Starkman: I wrote about this recently, and about the fact that food and media are actually two sides of the same coin: both have been made artificially cheap. At the end of the day, journalism must be seen as a public good, and whether it struggles on without a solid business model as a for-profit or as a social good, it will still need multiple revenue sources to stay alive.
Diet Detective: How do you use social media to advance Civil Eats’ mission and how do you see it as a part of food journalism?
Naomi Starkman: Because we’re a digital publication, social media is a critical part of our DNA. We’re lucky to work with our social media editor, Krista Holobar, who is deeply committed to our mission and has grown our base substantially. We also appreciate our power-linker fan base, including some of the top “fooderati,” elected officials, and media moguls. These individuals help Civil Eats amplify its reach significantly.
Diet Detective: How does Civil Eats impact food policy? Can you share any specific examples?
Naomi Starkman: As a journalism site, we don’t advocate directly to change policy, but we do hear from many folks that they rely on the site as a way to stay abreast of the ever-changing complexities of the food policy landscape. Whether that means examining the aftermath of the policy people are watchingsuch as the soda taxes in Berkeley and Phillyor the policy we think more people should be paying more attention to, such as the recently proposed animal welfare rulesin organic standards or the ag implications of California’s cap-and-trade policy or Philadelphia’s move to cut salt in Chinese food. We also help our readers hear directly from those in charge of food policy around the nation, like USDA’s assistant secretary for civil rights Joe Leonard and small farms advocate Rep . Chellie Pingree.
Diet Detective: What would it take for investing in sustainable food and agriculture to become more interesting? Can you talk a bit about food and ag tech? Where they are and where they’re going?
Naomi Starkman: Most of new investments are in bio-tech, e-farm techsensors, robots, and dronesand big farm data. There are some clear challenges for these technologies and questions remain whether food and ag tech will be ultimately be worth the investment for farmers, especially small farmers trying to grow food sustainably. As I wrote, I do wonder where is the capital for investing in food and agriculturereal assets, real farms, real people? What would it take for investing in food and ag to become as hot as apps and drones? What if farmers in the Salinas Valley became the real rock stars to investors in neighboring Silicon Valley?
Diet Detective: You wrote the following on Civil Eats about ag tech investment: “There’s tremendous capital interest in tech aimed at changing the way farms themselves run. Google Ventures, Kleiner Perkins, and other venture capital firms, along with General Mills, Campbell Soup Co., Kellogg’s, Land O’Lakes are all now investing in ag tech. Bayer and Syngenta have introduced an $11.5 million fund called AgTech Accelerator. Bayer is also teaming up with Dupont to create a $15 million accelerator fund to back early-stage ag tech companies. This week, Microsoft and Monsanto announced a partnership to invest in ag tech startups in Brazil with a $92 million fund.” All this commercial funding of agriculture can be concerning – are you concerned? Why or why not?
Naomi Starkman: Yes, I think we should all be concerned about who is funding the future of ag. Where is the money coming from and to whom might farmers and eaters thus become beholden? And what kind of future of food do we want? One that supports a healthy, robust, resilient, and bio-diverse food system, or one that is tailor-made for the big players?
Diet Detective: I’ve read that you consider yourself a “sister in agriculture,” can you discuss? Also, can you talk a bit about race and gender as they relate to agriculture and food?
Naomi Starkman: I stand beside the many women who have come before me, and who have been on the frontlines of agriculture, and in the fields. We report a lot on women in agriculture, and we’ve had an ongoing mission since our inception to cover issues of diversity and food justice in our reporting, and have actively sought out reporters and commentators of color.
Diet Detective: What in your food life have you changed based on your work at CivilEats.com?
Naomi Starkman: Not much, actually! But people sometimes admit they’re afraid to go out to eat with me or come to my house for a meal and then are relieved when they find out I’m not judgmental about food habits. I want people to be informed, not shamed or blamed, by their food choices. And I want everyone to be able to afford good, clean, and fair food.
Diet Detective: Who and what influenced your thoughts about food and the food system?
Naomi Starkman: I am indebted to my many mentors (many of whom are Civil Eats’ advisors): Michael Pollan, Mark Bittman, Marion Nestle, Ricardo Salvador, Raj Patel, Alice Waters, Ruth Reichl, Joan Gussow. And I sit at the feet of the farmers who have taught me so much, including my farming mentors Jack and Shannon Algiere of Stone Barns, Linda Halley, who is currently the interim director at MOSES [Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service], Judith Redmond of Full Belly Farm, Sue Ujcic of Helsing Junction Farm, and Mas Masumoto. And I am so lucky to be surrounded by colleagues whom I can truly call friends.
Diet Detective: What is the one food policy change at the local (or state or federal) level that you believe would have the greatest impact on health and food?
Naomi Starkman: One? That’s hard. On a macro level, I do think removing unnecessary antibiotics from animal agriculture is key. And if I can sneak in two: stop subsidizing junk food.
Diet Detective: Is there something about food or agriculture you’ve learned in the past few years that you haven’t discussed on CivilEats.com or in an interview that would surprise us? What is the story you wish were told in a big way that hasn’t been?
Naomi Starkman: If there’s a story, we’ve probably covered it! We work hard to break news, spur trends, and we often lead the conversation by publishing stories that then get re-reported elsewhere. I only wish we had more funding so that we could do more reporting, including more video reporting.
Diet Detective: What was your breakfast this morning?
Naomi Starkman: Kale, quinoa, pumpkin seeds, with some avocado and olive oil.
Diet Detective: What’s in your refrigerator and pantry right now?
Naomi Starkman: Fruit and veg from the garden, grains and beans, local eggs and milk, lots of tea, Equator coffee, and Theo Chocolate.
Diet Detective: Your last meal would be?
Naomi Starkman: Probably the same thing I had for breakfast!
Diet Detective: Your favorite “junk food?”
Naomi Starkman: Nut butter. I’m guilty of spooning it right out of the jar.
Diet Detective: Your worst summer job?
Naomi Starkman: Didn’t have a bad one.
Diet Detective: As a child you wanted to be?
Naomi Starkman: A psychologist.
Quick thoughts on the following:
Diet Detective: Food policy?
Naomi Starkman: Vital.
Diet Detective: Locally grown foods?
Naomi Starkman: Resilient.
Diet Detective: Food journalism?
Naomi Starkman: Critical.
Diet Detective: Sustainable agriculture?
Naomi Starkman: Healthy.
Diet Detective: Food additives and preservatives?
Naomi Starkman: Not good.
Diet Detective: GMO foods?
Naomi Starkman: Complicated.
Diet Detective: Organic farming?
Naomi Starkman: Sustaining.
Grew up in: Northern California
Where you live: Northern California
Background and Education: Studied International Relations & German, Law Degree and certificates in International Law and Public Interest Law
One word you would use to describe our food system: Rising
Food policy hero: Tie for Joan Gussow and Marion Nestle
Favorite food: Peas
Social media and food policy website(s) must follow/read: Civil Eats, of course! Politico’s Morning Ag, FERN’s Ag Insider, and Marion Nestle’s Food Politics.
Favorite food policy book: Food Politics
Photo credit: Naomi Fiss
CHARLES PLATKIN, PhD is a nutrition and public health advocate and founder of DietDetective.com, and the Director of the New York City Food Policy Center at Hunter College. Copyright 2016 by Charles Platkin. All rights reserved. Sign up for the free Diet Detective newsletter at www.DietDetective.com